Alumni Profile: Eric Schroeder (BFA Furniture Design) is Making a Career Out of Collaboration
image courtesy of Eric Schroeder
(’17, BFA Furniture Design)
Eric Schroeder arrived at KCAD as a self-professed wallflower, but he wouldn’t stay that way for long. Sprung from a nexus of community, process, empathy, and experiential learning, Schroeder’s KCAD experience would transform him into a versatile and insatiably curious designer who thrives on collaborating across disciplinary and social boundaries to make a difference in the world. Since landing a job at BOLD Furniture during his junior year, he’s been helping drive the company’s equitable, accessible, and sustainable approach to design and manufacturing.
What drew you to KCAD and the Furniture Design program specifically?
I was accepted into three or four different art and design schools around the country, but KCAD ended up being the best fit for me, and I couldn’t be more content with how things have worked out. I was accepted for my photography portfolio, but through exposure to a lot of different classes I learned that I really enjoyed drawing furniture, and realized that one of the best Furniture Design programs in the country was right under my nose. I wanted to get into design because I believe that good design can increase people’s quality of life.
What was your experience in the program like?
I was able to completely immerse myself in the history, trends, and methodology of designing furniture, and that was invaluable because I draw on all of that constantly. My style is minimalist and modern, but I am always referencing the historical styles and compositions I studied. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
My faculty had a substantial impact on me as well. I found that if I was willing to ask questions or put in extra effort, they were always willing to take the time to help me expand not just my skills, but my understanding. I had professors who taught me the standards of my industry, who helped me develop a deep respect for the history of furniture, who led me to be cognizant of the environmental impacts of everything I design, and who showed me how important it is to think outside of the box and play outside of my realm.
You also minored in Collaborative Design. What doors did that open up for you?
I was never too keen to speak my mind, but my Collaborative Design courses taught me how essential communication is to the design process, and helped me build skills and strategies that I use every day in my career. Furniture design, especially the custom work we do at BOLD, is a quick turnaround environment, so a collaborative mindset is vital.
Whether I’m working with other designers, our quoting and manufacturing teams, or the end client, I’m constantly sharing ideas, listening closely, taking critiques, and diving into the aspects of the process that are outside my own. The more you collaborate, the more you’re able to learn from others and bring that into your own work.
Custom conference table designed for the headquarters of Essence, a New York City-based global data agency (images courtesy of BOLD Furniture)
What did it mean to you to be surrounded at KCAD by a community of peers who were also driven by creativity?
My closest group of friends and those who support me the most have all been people I’ve met through KCAD. I’ve developed a network of people of all sorts of talents and professions that I collaborate with through work, and I’ve been able to try all sorts of different forms of artmaking through these friendships.
The best thing you can possibly do at KCAD is to get out of your comfort zone and meet people outside of your program. The creative community in Grand Rapids is a huge and largely friendly group of people; find friends when you’re a student, and you’ll have colleagues when you’re a professional.
What experiences outside of the classroom helped you make the most of your education?
Volunteering with [Grand Rapids-based arts organization] SiTE:Lab was one thing that was huge for me. I was able to travel to every corner of the country and have really meaningful experiences working with all these different artists. That really drove me to get more involved with the fine art side of KCAD: exploring sculpture and functional art, doing more hands-on stuff in the woodshop, and just observing what fine arts students were doing and being inspired to push the boundaries of what furniture can be.
It’s easy for designers to think they’re separate from artists, but we’re all part of the same creative community, and if you’re not engaged in the community as a whole, you’re missing out on opportunities to learn and grow.
What’s the most fulfilling aspect of the work you’re doing now?
I love being able to, instead of creating a single product that generally solves issues for a broad range of people, employ the same user-centered design process I learned at KCAD to really communicate with individual customers, understand their needs, and design to meet them. I also get to indulge my desire to understand the larger context of how the things I make will be used, as well as the environmental implications of the material choices and manufacturing process; that’s something the company really values, as do I.
(above): White oak and steel sideboards, designed by Schroeder and BOLD, overlooking New York City from the One World Trade Center building; (below): The building also features work banquettes Schroeder and BOLD designed for cable television and communications provider Mediacom (images courtesy of BOLD Furniture)
What have you been working on recently at BOLD?
Working with [local disability arts advocacy organization] DisArt, we had the opportunity to modify one of our existing products—the One Collection adjustable desk design by KCAD alumnus Joey Ruiter—to better suit the needs and process of Wesley Devries, a disabled artist who was featured at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park during ArtPrize 10. His disability requires him to work in different postures on a regular basis, so we spent a lot of time listening to his needs and watching him work so we could understand how to make some changes in terms of degrees of height adjustability, controls, power routing and focusing on making the surface work for his needs. The desk functions well for him, and it was really rewarding for everyone on our team to go through that whole process and be able to help.
I’ve also lately been designing quite a few custom products for Spotify’s U.S. headquarters in the 4 World Trade Center building. We’re in the process of fabricating a 26 foot-long live-edge white oak and steel conference table right now, which has been for sure a proud moment in my career.
(above): Rendering of a conference table Schroeder and BOLD designed for streaming music giant Spotify’s New York City headquarters (image courtesy of BOLD Furniture); (below): Artist Wesley Devries working on the custom modified desk Schroeder and BOLD created for him (credit: Kendra Larsen)
What’s the most important thing your career has taught you thus far?
Understanding how valuable it is to be aware of every part of the design process. The moment you think you’re above a certain type of work, you’ve lost track of your humanity, and of the process itself. Although over time I’ve worked my way out of the woodshop and into the design offices, I still love going out, lending a hand, and working on specific details, because staying connected to the process is important to me. Humility keeps you sharp and makes you a better designer.